You need to be good at your chosen trade, of course.

The more skillful and knowledgable you are, the brighter your chances out there.

(And besides, when we hang out our signs as writers, coders, illustrators, and designers, we have an obligation to honor the craft by being as good as we can be.)

But, unfortunately, mastering your craft isn’t quite enough to ring the bell in this freelance game.

There are crackerjack creatives out there who struggle to pay the rent. And I know a number of freelancers who have, shall we say, ‘modest’ abilities, but drive cars more expensive than mine.

As I have seen over and over, the freelancers with the enviable client lists and the fat bank accounts have all mastered the ‘street’ part of freelancing.

Those are the skills you need to turn your mastery of the craft into a paying profession.

Here’s the first in the stack.

It underlies everything we do.

Reading clients’ minds

My programmer friend likes to call this ‘Client-Side Thinking’.

You need to get good at thinking about what you do, at seeing what you do, from the client’s side of the desk.

Top freelancers are supremely good at that.

The ability to get out of your own head, and see things through client eyes will affect pretty much all we do. From attracting clients in the first place. To pricing a project. To figuring out how to execute it. And how to parlay that project into more work, and more referrals.

As a freelance designer once told me, “It took me a while to figure out that I’m not in the business of creating great design. I’m in the business of using design to make a client look good, solve a client problem, help a client do business.

“That’s where the money is.”

There’s a difference between creating captivating illustrations, and creating captivating illustrations for editors on deadline, who need to make an article more compelling.

The client says they’re looking for a biomedical English-to-German translator with impeccable credentials. But what they really want is to make their new imaging systems look attractive in the German market.

If you want to work with creative directors, or product managers, or corporate legal departments, or marketing coordinators, IT directors, you need to know the species.

What is the job like? What pressures are they under? How do they keep score? What makes them look good, or bad? Where does your skill fit in all of that?

This client-side thinking isn’t always easy. Not for me, anyway. I tend to get too wrapped up in myself.

When a client is telling me about a project, my brain automatically starts chattering about the ‘me’ part.

I’m thinking “I hope I don’t have to interview nine people for this. Maybe I could use that idea I had yesterday. I hope she wants to start right away, I have downtime this week. I wonder how much I could get for this. Will she want samples?”

No. That’s all for later.

What I should be doing is listening. Asking questions. Trying to understand the landscape, their situation, and the subtext.

“Is this project a big deal? Or some nuisance thing her boss wants? What happens if this comes out lousy? How did they do this before? Where does this fit into their overall mission? In her overall job? What do consider ‘good?’ Is she uncertain about me? Who will review this besides her? Does she buy work like this all the time?”

Some of these things you can ask. Some you just have to listen for. There’s no formula here, except to encourage them to talk. “Interesting, tell me more.” And listen, intently. Stop thinking about yourself for now.

The more you practice listening, the better you get.

You need to understand, intuitively, in your bones, what the client is really paying for here. And how they see things. What they want.

Top freelancers are supremely good at that.

A big caveat.

None of this suggests that you automatically roll over and do whatever the client wants, at any price. Having empathy doesn’t mean being a patsy.

Your keen and insightful reading of this client, and this project, may reveal that it’s a dumb-ass idea, with no budget, and will ruin your mood for a week. Or it’s just not something you’d be good at. Which is all valuable to know.

So you, graciously decline, and if you can, point them somewhere else.

And on to the next opportunity.


Photo: John Evans.